We're in day five of the tech community's obsession with Psystar, that odd little company in Miami that claims to be selling Apple-like computers. There are still plenty of questions about Psystar. Shoot, we still don't even know for certain if Psystar is legitimate.
But there's one thing we know for sure: Citizen journalism has played a major role in ferreting out the Psystar story. And with that involvement, we're getting a better understanding of how mainstream newspapers can work with folks who aren't trying to make a living off gathering the news but are interested in telling the world what they know.
Can you imagine if newspapers could generate the enthusiasm for their stories that tech sites managed to do for their Psystar coverage? The potential for that enthusiasm is there. Newspapers, not even the online versions of them, just aren't doing a very good job of tapping it.
Think Mac fans are crazy-passionate? Try a San Francisco parent worried about what school his or her kid will get into through the city's baffling school lottery system. Think open-source programmers like to go into the weeds in their technical discussions? Try a Red Sox or Yankees fan in late September.
I bring this up out of love, not hate. I'm a newspaper junkie. My first jobs out of college were in small dailies on the police beat, and part of me still romanticizes that work. (OK, so it's the part of me that probably doesn't remember the lousy pay and waiting for a cop quote at a crime scene in a New England snowstorm.) Point is, newspapers have a lot to learn from tech news sites.
Imagine if most newspaper Web sites had community bloggers--a blogger for every tight-knit neighborhood or small town, hitting all the local school news, the restaurant comings and goings, even the local precinct's police blotter. These blogs could be neighborhood forums, meeting places for the nitty-gritty news that regular newspaper reporters probably don't want to deal with. They could even be platforms for localized classified ads.
A pipe dream? I don't think so. Not even Craigslist, which has done so much to damage newspaper revenues, can offer that kind of hyper-local advertising. No, this isn't going to save print newspapers. But it could help keep them alive in an online form.
Does that mean the role of the traditional reporter goes away? Not at all. But those full-timers are supplemented by people who are going to know an awful lot more about what's going on their neighborhood than a reporter who parachutes in for a story. Newspaper executives, in fact, call it hyper-localism. Unfortunately, few of them are doing it very well.
Of course, the citizen journalism model is far from perfect. Earlier this week, Gizmodo sent its Miami readers after Psystar. They came back with photos showing (aha!) that Psystar wasn't at the address it claimed. There was only one problem: they went to the wrong address.
Now in fairness to the Gizmodo readers, Psystar has changed the address it lists at least four times by my colleague Tom Krazit's count. And if it weren't for those readers at Gizmodo and other sites CNET like News.com (many of whom also dug up interesting business records), along with some good reporting at outlets like The Guardian, the many red flags about Psystar wouldn't have been raised so quickly.
Sure, plenty of old-time journalists go on tantrums about citizen journalism ("How dare they?! This is a profession!! You have to study at the Columbia School of Journalism first!"). On the contrary, I think it's forward-thinking. What Gizmodo did was gave their readers a stake in the news; they became participants, not just followers.
As anyone who's worked the crime beat at a newspaper can tell you, it's not the police who tell you what really happened, it's the nosy neighbors. True, the nosy neighbors (or well-intentioned tech site readers) can be wrong from time to time. That's a risk, and that's why the world still needs editors.
But then again, the way things are going at many newspapers, going out of business is also a risk.